What on Earth is going on?
June 09, 2005
America can hide from reality about global warming no longer — and they're showing that they know it.
THE SPECTACLE of a White House aide sexing up scientific documents about climate change — by playing up uncertainties
and deleting references to melting glaciers — would be high camp if it weren’t so serious. The impression that
our future is in the hands of a Lavender Hill Mob will certainly play to the anti-American lobby that greets every new Bush
blunder on the environment with glee. But to gloat about George Bush’s tortuous dance around the issue — he again
ducked the question of whether climate change is man-made at this week’s press conference with Tony Blair — would
be misguided. The world will get nowhere by bashing the US, nor by using the US as an excuse to do nothing.
Bob May, the President of the Royal Society, said yesterday that “world leaders, including the G8, can no longer
use uncertainty about aspects of climate change as an excuse for not taking urgent action to cut greenhouse gas emissions”.
These are extraordinarly strong words from a scientist, reflecting a strongly worded joint declaration by 11 national science
academies, including the American National Academy of Sciences. When George Bush asked the NAS to opine in 2001, he was hoping
it would label the 2,000 scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) a bunch of pinko liberals. Instead,
it supported the IPCC’s conclusion “that most of the observed warming of the last 50 years is likely to have been
due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations”. Ouch.
The scientific consensus on global warming now is that the increase in the Earth’s temperature during the 20th century
is almost certainly unprecedented — greater than in any other century in the previous thousand years; that the rate
of warming since 1976 has been roughly three times that for the past 100 years; and that the extra warming is at least partially,
possibly wholly, man-made. “We’ve reached the point”, says a Hadley Centre scientist, “where it’s
only by including human activity that we can explain what’s happening.” Even the few who argue that the models
understate past temperature fluctuations agree that the recent rate of warming is unprecedented.
The IPCC expects temperatures to rise this century by between 1.4 and 5.8C — that is, up to ten times the increase
thus far — which would give us more to worry about than whether to go diving in the Maldives or skiing in the Alps:
that choice may not exist.
The honesty of scientists about the enormous uncertainties inevitably gives succour to sceptics. Take the glacier problem.
Some glaciers and ice shelves are actually thickening, apparently due to precipitation effects of climate change. But the
vast majority are melting, and snow cover on the globe has fallen by about 10 per cent since the 1960s. Nor can we be precise
about possible indirect effects of climate change, such as rising tides, crop failure, hurricanes and floods, and the possible
spread of diseases like malaria.
We are conducting a giant experiment on the Earth’s atmosphere, one of nature’s most complex and sensitive
mechanisms. It is devilishly tricky to know exactly how nature will respond to exponential changes in the gases we pump into
the air. But the bottom line for the vast majority of climate scientists seems to be that we must act now, because we know
enough to know that we are getting out of control.
When the car goes out of control, you slam on the brakes. If the brakes fail, you head for the softest landing you can
— but the risks of fatality are increasing all the time. My impression from talking to climate scientists, who mostly
shun the limelight, is that they have gone from bewilderment to real anxiety at our complacency. For four years they have
been telling us that concentrations of carbon dioxide will continue to increase even if we stopped burning all fossil fuels
today. Yet we can’t even remember to turn out the lights.
What does this mean for the G8 and Tony Blair’s ambitions? The scientific consensus is propelling some surprising
people into action. In America the northeastern states, backed by the Republican Governor of New York, are setting up a regional
emissions trading scheme. Arnold Schwarzenegger, another Republican governor, last Wednesday signed an executive order committing
California to staged reductions in greenhouse gas emissions uncannily similar to those required by the Kyoto Protocol.
Given that California is the world’s sixth largest economy and a leader in technology, it cannot have escaped Arnie’s
notice that the scramble for competitive advantage in alternative energy has already begun. General Electric is determinedly
positioning itself as a leader in “clean” technologies such as wind power and coal gasification. With Duke Synergy,
another US utility, it hopes to sell second-generation gasification to China. Meanwhile even Exxon Mobil’ s latest advertisement
shows steam coming from a kettle and extolling the virtues of energy efficiency. What is going on? Partly the high oil price,
and partly the growing consensus on climate change that makes companies believe that governments must eventually impose carbon
taxes. And with investment horizons of 30 to 50 years, many would prefer to know now rather than later what the regulatory
environment will be.
The language from China and America in the coming months will be more about “energy independence” than “climate
change” per se. That does not matter necessarily. Both countries are concerned about energy security, and both have
enormous reserves of coal. The Chinese are also conscious that climate change will hit poorer countries harder and earlier.
There is a shared interest there, but it will take all of Mr Blair’s statesmanship to exploit it.
I leave you with a quote from Mr Schwarzenegger last week: “I say the debate is over. We know the science, we see
the threat and we know the time for action is now.” God bless America.
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